On the outskirts of the Midlands town where Michelle grew up is a low, beige building set back from the road. It has few windows and looks strangely blank – although neat black letters on the side once announced its function to the world. It’s
an old Kingdom Hall – the Jehovah’s Witness equivalent of a church – and when Michelle was a child, she would spend many hours a week here at religious meetings. She knew this building before she learnt to talk.
When she wasn’t at meetings, Michelle would go on ‘field service’ – the Jehovah’s Witness practice of going door to door. She would pair up with another, older Jehovah’s Witness and together they would urge the strangers who answered their knocks to join the organisation, which these days has 140,000 followers in Britain. They would tell those strangers that worshipping Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, was their ticket to Paradise, a way of saving themselves from Armageddon, which was just around the corner.
For many people reading this, their experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses will be as one of those strangers, opening a front door to be greeted by a pair of neatly dressed individuals bearing copies of The Watchtower. Some people will slam the door in their faces, but most will politely decline the publications on offer and close the door gently as the Jehovah’s Witnesses move on.
For Michelle, these sessions were traumatic. She was unfazed by the doors closing in her face, but she learnt to dread the time alone with the man who more often than not partnered up with her.
An abuse of trust
Peter Stewart was a ‘ministerial servant’, one of the lower rungs in the hierarchical ladder of a Jehovah Witness congregation, and described in the organisation’s literature as ‘spiritually- minded, reliable, and conscientious men’. A former public school boy, known for his impeccable grammar and an elegant line in suits, he was older, lived alone and had a reputation for being kind and friendly to children.
‘People would go in couples and he would… be like, “Oh, well, there’s only me and Michelle left, so I’ll take her with me and we’ll do it together,”’ she recalls.
But Stewart’s affable public persona was very unlike the person he became when they were alone. He would suggest that they finish their knocks early. Then he would take her back to his car or his house and assault her.
Michelle is not sure how long his campaign of abuse continued for – Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays or Christmas, which makes it harder to mark time – but it ended when she was around six. Sitting in the living room of her cosy terraced house, many years on, Michelle finds it very hard to revisit what happened, but she has agreed to talk to The Telegraph for our investigative podcast, Call Bethel.
Ordinarily, she is entertaining, using her deadpan sense of humour to spin mischievous tales about the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which she has now left. She has clearly built a good, new life for herself, and speaks dotingly of her daughter, whose pictures hang on the walls. But on the subject of abuse, Michelle seizes up. That name is in fact a pseudonym, and she has blocked out many details of what happened – although the trauma still makes itself felt daily.
She suffers from a condition called koumpounophobia, which is a fear of buttons. It makes dressing her child very difficult and stems from the days when she used to get her hair caught in the buttons on her abuser’s trousers.
Child sexual abuse is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable. Sadly, cases are not uncommon within religious groups. But what is particularly shocking about what happened to Michelle is the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses dealt with it.
She told her family what was going on when she was around six years old, after her grandmother – oblivious to what had happened – made arrangements for Michelle to stay at her abuser’s house. ‘I remember just thinking to myself. There’s no way that I’m spending a whole week with this person,’ she says.
Bound by belief
Her grandmother acted immediately. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are wary of secular authorities, believing them to be part of the ‘worldly’ system that could be used as Satan’s tool. So instead of going to the police, she reported Stewart to the leaders of the congregation – a group of men known as ‘elders’, whose position is broadly comparable to a priest in a church.
Those elders are bound by strict rules whenever they hear of a fellow congregant’s alleged misconduct. Two of the leaders will investigate the matter. Then, if the claims are upheld, a panel of three elders will form a judicial committee who will assess what has happened and decide whether to mete out punishment. That process is the same regardless of whether the ‘sin’ is a crime, such as child abuse, or something as minor as smoking.
When the elders approached Stewart about Michelle’s abuse, he confessed. In a secular court, that might have led to a guilty plea and a prison sentence. But the religious judicial committee is focused on whether a person is repentant. Stewart vowed that he would not harm another child, and the elders believed him. They imposed only a minor sanction.
Michelle’s lawyer, Kathleen Hallisey, explains: ‘Peter Stewart stopped leading field service… there were rumours among the congregation about why that was but nobody really knew.’ He was allowed to return to his old duties after a few weeks.
Michelle was not told any of this. She is now in her late 30s and has only recently understood what happened to her. She has spent most of her life believing that the horrible images buried in the recesses of her mind were the product of her own imagination.
That’s because, according to evidence she gave to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), she was told by the elders of the congregation that she was wrong to believe she had been abused. ‘There was a lot of me being told I had misunderstood what had happened, that it wasn’t right and wouldn’t have been what happened’, she recalls.
On one occasion, she remembers a congregant reprimanding her in that blank, beige building for refusing to sit on his knee.
The gaslighting was so effective that Michelle suppressed the memories for years, until 2015 when a BBC article about a landmark case in the High Court caught her attention.
Systemic blame of victims
A former Jehovah’s Witness, known as Victim A in court papers, had successfully sued the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – as the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is officially called – for failing to protect her from a known paedophile within its ranks. That paedophile was Peter Stewart, who had abused Victim A over a period of around six years.
The article described how the leaders of the congregation should have kept Victim A away from Stewart, because he had already confessed to having abused another young child. Michelle immediately recognised the child as herself. ‘I read it a few times and I just thought… that’s me.’
The news was overwhelming: realisation mixed with tremendous guilt. ‘My first thought was, “Well, this is my fault then… I should have done something.”’
She contacted the solicitor named in the article – Hallisey – to see if she could apologise to the other victim. Obviously, Michelle had nothing to apologise for. After all, she had been a child at the time of the abuse. What’s more, she had reported it. It was the adults around her that failed her.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses point out that while they don’t want to ‘minimise the hurt and trauma that Peter Stewart inflicted’ on Michelle, the case occurred more than 30 years ago and their approach has changed a lot since.
But in failing Michelle, they also failed Victim A – whom we have decided to call Daria – and at least one other child, whom Stewart went on to abuse.
In 1995, Stewart was jailed for assaulting and raping a child. The leader of the congregation said he sent a newspaper article about the conviction to the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters to keep on file. It made their eventual response to Daria’s claims, years later, all the more shocking.
These days, Daria has left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She has a family and a successful job in social services. Over the course of many conversations, it is clear that she is very intelligent; in fact, it’s a source of regret that the abuse she suffered derailed her studies so that she never became a lawyer.
She is glamorous, with manicured nails, figure-hugging clothes and expensively highlighted hair. Some of it may be a protective façade, but Daria has an air of confidence that belies the fact that she suffered years of abuse at Stewart’s hands.
The abuse started when she was three or four years old. Stewart accompanied Daria to the garden shed to look at a spider she had named, and touched her between her legs.
It is one of the quirks of Jehovah’s Witnesses that it is a highly patriarchal organisation. Daria’s father was not a Jehovah’s Witness at that point, so, she says, her mother was regarded as a ‘spiritual widow’. It gave Stewart the perfect means to inveigle his way into their household – ostensibly to help Daria and her mother prepare for Kingdom Hall meetings and oversee their spiritual development.
He would take every opportunity he could to abuse her – multiple times a week – for around six years until his sudden arrest in 1994.
Stewart also worked to make Daria feel complicit. For years, he would force her to write him notes. They started as scribbles because she was so young, but would later evolve into descriptions of what he had forced her to do. The guilt weighed heavily on Daria, who believed she had sinned and would be killed at Armageddon.
Like Michelle, Daria had been reared on images of fireballs coming out of the sky, and birds feasting on people’s flesh – dramatic pictorial representations of what the world will look like when the current ‘order’ ends. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs, they are the only ones who will be saved to establish Paradise on earth.
Paradise is depicted as an exciting prospect for children, who are told that wild animals will become harmless, that they will get to keep them as pets, that there will be no such thing as disease, and that they will be reunited with relatives who are long dead.
But for Daria, Paradise always felt beyond reach because of what Stewart had done to her. Every time she went to the Kingdom Hall, there would be a new mention of Armageddon, each one serving ‘as a reminder that I’m going to be killed and God is very angry with me for what I’ve done. I one hundred per cent believed that Armageddon was coming and that I was going to die… It was frightening,’ she says.
The shame was so overwhelming that she did not tell anyone what had happened to her until 2000 when she was a teenager. It was shortly after Stewart had been released from prison.
Daria – afraid that the leaders of the congregation would formally welcome him back – confided in her mother, who immediately wrote to Stewart, demanding to know how he could do such a thing. Surprisingly, he responded, writing her a letter of apology, handwritten in blue ink.
The letter does not spell out exactly what he is sorry for, but the implication is clear. He refers to himself as a ‘pervert’ and says that various ‘mechanical operations’ – it is unclear what they are exactly – mean that he cannot hurt Daria any longer. In a flourish that particularly angered the teenage Daria, he also told her mother that another ‘spell in prison would mean my end’.
‘I recognised his handwriting when the letter fell on the mat… It was all just manipulation. He certainly wasn’t sorry, and he certainly wouldn’t have thought twice about doing it again,’ she says.
Extraordinarily, shortly after he sent the letter, Stewart began turning up again at the Kingdom Hall. Appalled, Daria’s mother reported Stewart to the congregation elders. But when the elders asked Stewart about the allegations, he denied it all.
The two-witness rule
One might think that between the letter and Stewart’s previous convictions, Daria’s account would have been believed. The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they have taken steps to address the issue of child abuse by providing guidance to members about the issue, as well as education. They highlight that they now have a new child safeguarding policy, which means that when they believe a child is in danger, the police are informed.
But then, as now, all Jehovah’s Witness congregations worldwide run their internal ecclesiastical process according to the ‘two witness rule’. It stems from a verse in the book of Deuteronomy, and stipulates that without a confession, elders can only uphold an allegation against an individual if it has been observed by two witnesses. Paedophiles generally operate in secret, so without an admission of guilt from the perpetrator, this standard is woefully inadequate. It is also inconsistently applied.
The organisation says that under its new child safeguarding policy, two witnesses are not needed for a report to be made to the police. But when it comes to their internal processes, sources have questioned current guidelines for elders which states that ‘no action can be taken if there is only one witness’ and while the ‘testimony of unbelievers… may be considered, it must be weighed carefully’.
It is possible that that was the case here. But the elders didn’t even give sufficient weight to Stewart’s written admission. Daria’s mother showed them a copy of the letter of apology numerous times over the years. According to Daria, one of the elders – a man named Alan Orton – eventually ripped it up.
Many years later – after Stewart had died of natural causes – the same elder would come to play a leading role in the case Daria brought against Watchtower in the High Court. The judge said he found the elders who gave evidence to be ‘honest, upright, loyal and devout men’ who were ‘horrified by the sexual abuse’, but some of what they described was startling.
Orton told the court that he had known that Stewart was a paedophile even before Daria’s mother had reported her abuse. He knew that Stewart had confessed to abusing Michelle years earlier, shortly after he had slotted himself into Daria’s household. Incredibly, it turned out that Orton had actually sat on the judicial committee that heard his confession, and that accepted his word that he would not reoffend.
The news left Daria shocked and horrified, and made her court victory bittersweet. ‘I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true that he had lied like that – that he had known all the time and still not believed me,’ she says.
Another victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of a Jehovah’s Witness would later learn about Daria’s court case, with little surprise. Lacie Jones had repeatedly been abused by her stepfather, Clifford Whitely. She had been very excited when Whitely first became part of her family, partly because he was an elder and the ‘spirituality sort of flowed out of him’, she says. ‘He was seen as a very pious man, a very moral man.’
They formed a very close-knit family unit, and things were fine for the first few years of their life together. But then one day, when Lacie was around 11, Whitely put his hand up her dress while her mother slept in the same room. The abuse became a pattern. Whitely would generally molest Lacie in silence, but she recalls that he spoke up on one of the last occasions.
‘He had asked me if it hurt. And I had said yes. And then he said, “OK, then we need to pray together…” He started praying and asked for forgiveness, for both him and me, because we’d both done something wrong,’ she says.
Like Daria, Lacie kept the abuse a secret for years. But then one day in 2019, she blurted it out over lunch with her sister, who by that time had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was shortly after this point that Lacie’s own faith started to unravel.
Lacie’s mother reported Whitely to the elders, and the wheels of its quasi-judicial process started to turn. He admitted to some of the abuse, and a judicial committee cast him out of the congregation. But as far as Lacie is concerned, that is where the decisive action ended.
When she reported Whitely to the police, the officer in charge, Detective Constable Philip Endsor, asked the congregation elders for assistance. He wanted witness statements from two of the elders who had heard Whitely’s confession – Rudi Dobson and David Clifford.
He believes that the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘more or less… closed ranks’. ‘[They] frustrated the investigation all the way through. I’ve dealt with a number of similar matters with all types of organisations behind them, and I’ve got to say this is probably the most awkward of organisations to deal with’.
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that they caused any delays, they admit that they told the police that they had a religious duty of confidentiality to Whitely, and could not provide a witness statement without his permission. They also refused to hand over any documentation from their meetings with Whitely, claiming that they first needed his permission or a court order. DC Endsor applied for one. The Jehovah’s Witnesses contested it in court but complied when the police eventually secured it.
It was a bruising process for Lacie, especially given she viewed Dobson and Clifford like uncles.
‘They told me, as per their script… that it was my absolute right to go to the police,’ Lacie says. ‘They just failed to tell me that they would not support me during that process.’
Lacie even invited them to her house to ask why they wouldn’t help. ‘They were looking at the floor. And I just leant forward and I said, “But he’s a paedophile.” Without looking at me, they just sort of mumbled.’ They replied, ‘Yes, we know,’ Lacie later related to IICSA.
When the police were eventually able to get hold of the paperwork relating to Whitely, it included a typed form disfellowshipping him, with details of his confession. There was also a report about Lacie, with what appeared to be ratings for her ‘stamina’ and whether she maintained ‘a dignified personal appearance’. At the bottom there were five words that would become crucial to Whitely’s conviction. ‘One act of digital penetration,’ it said.
A vindicating conviction
In 2020, shortly before the pandemic, Lacie’s abuser was sentenced to nine years in prison for the sexual assault of a child and three other serious sexual offences. DC Endsor told The Telegraph that he is also aware of another alleged victim, who opted not to pursue a case in court because she did not want to upset her Jehovah’s Witness family.
For Lacie, Whitely’s conviction was vindication – but she remains furious that it took such a fight to get there. And she is acutely aware of the pressure that would deter many Jehovah’s Witness abuse victims from ever speaking up.
As with Daria and Michelle, her experience had also made her re-examine the faith that she had grown up in, and question why elders who learn of child sexual abuse in their congregations do not report it to the police as a matter of course.
It is a mandatory requirement to do so in many countries, but when a Government consultation examined whether to implement the same in Britain, it concluded in 2018 that the case for doing so had not yet been made. It said that mandatory reporting would generate so many reports, it would create a ‘needle in a haystack effect’, making it harder rather than easier to identify ‘key cases’.
For their part, the Jehovah’s Witnesses make arguments about ecclesiastical duty. For Daria and Michelle’s lawyer, such an exemption would be a tough sell. ‘It’s debatable whether a “confessional privilege” exists in the Jehovah’s Witnesses context,’ says Hallisey. She believes it comes down to the confession not being to a single person, that it is more of an investigation: meaning that information gleaned should be disclosed.
Daria’s own best guess rests on the foundations of the Jehovah’s Witness belief system.
‘[With] anything that happens within their organisation, there is this belief that Satan will use it against them, and it will be used to tear down the great work that they’re doing.
‘And ultimately… Armageddon will happen any day, and God’s going to sort it all out, so why should we?’
Listen to The Telegraph’s five-part series, Call Bethel, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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|1942||Knorr elected president of Watch Tower Society|
|1966||The year 1975 suggested as possible date for Armageddon|
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